‘Vile backlash’: Marae hails tough decision to fund upgrades

Posted 14 June 2024 by Moana Ellis
Te Ao Hou Marae chairman Geoffrey Hipango praised the Whanganui District councillors who fought to establish a new marae development fund in their 10-year plan.

Te Ao Hou Marae chairman Geoffrey Hipango praised the Whanganui District councillors who fought to establish a new marae development fund in their 10-year plan. Photo: LDR / Moana Ellis

A Whanganui marae leader is hailing a “brave decision” by Whanganui District Council to set aside $3.5 million in its 10-year plan for marae upgrades but says social media backlash has been “vile”.

The district’s nearly 20 marae will be able to apply for marae development grants from a $500,000 pool each year for seven years.

Te Ao Hou Marae chair Geoffrey Hipango applauded councillors who “stood strong” during a gruelling Long-Term Plan discussion on the council’s preferred option to establish the annual fund from 2028-2034.

He said those councillors had a fight on their hands to pass chief executive David Langford’s recommendations for the new grants, with 744 public submissions against the proposal – more than half (53 percent) of those received on the subject.

A total of 503 – 36 percent of submitters – supported the proposal, which will cost $27 per property from 2028-2034.

Councillors also worked through three sets of alternative resolutions, including from the deputy mayor.

“I acknowledge the council,” Hipango said. “It was a brave decision wrestled out in the chambers.

“I knew how hard it was going to be for them [because] of the submissions to the Long-Term Plan process.

“We ourselves had to submit in terms of our rightful place to be in this community and what that looks like.”

Hipango said he was not prepared for the resulting social media backlash.

“What we’re seeing in the comments is vile.”

During the debate on 7 June, councillor Rob Vinsen said establishing the fund would create division and iwi should use Treaty Settlement redress to fund marae development.

“The community have told us quite clearly what they want,” Vinsen said.

Mayor Andrew Tripe took Vinsen to task for calling the grants an annual “hand-out” to marae.

“That is inflammatory language and not acceptable in this room.”

When Vinsen used the term again, despite the caution, the mayor asked Vinsen to withdraw his comment and apologise.

Vinsen refused, and councillor Kate Joblin called for disciplinary action. Councillor Philippa Baker-Hogan protested, calling out “No! Come on, people!”

The mayor stopped the meeting to consult the standing orders, before citing standing order 20.5 relating to contempt and disorderly conduct.

He gave Vinsen a further opportunity to withdraw his comment and apologise. Vinsen did so to supportive calls of “Good on you, Rob” from councillors Charlie Anderson and Philippa Baker-Hogan.

Three sets of alternative resolutions were prpoposed, including a reduced fund of $100,000 per year available to any community resilience and infrastructure development project.

The chief executive’s original resolutions were eventually passed 7-5.

Hipango said Māori were tired of negativity toward development initiatives, including to upgrades at Te Ao Hou Marae on the west bank of the Whanganui River.

“It’s this need to be able to withstand this level of scrutiny for our right to exist as marae.

“We are part of this community and have been so from the time of settlement. We contribute into Whanganui socially and economically.

“Our marae are proactive, bridging out into our communities. We build social connection. Our doors are open. We have elderly from the community here. We recognise loneliness and the need to reduce social isolation.

“We have a monthly community dinner here, neighbours getting to know neighbours. We have 70 people every month, sometimes up to 120. These are people that are not Māori but they feel comfortable coming here.”

Hipango said the council’s decision recognised the vital role marae played during emergency responses.

Whanganui River marae were at the heart of the community response during the 2015 Whanganui flood and as support hubs throughout the pandemic, he said.

“They gave direction in terms of our tribal areas inputting money, buying kai, distributing that out, and allying the 200 workforce from the likes of [Māori health provider] Te Oranganui, Ngāti Apa and Ngāti Rangi, and they fed the entire community. It wasn’t just Māori, and that’s an example of when we can mobilise and utilise our strength.”

Hipango said marae would apply the new grant fund to critical upgrades such as to water infrastructure, ablutions and roofing.

“It’s not just about the funding – it will allow marae to focus on planning and developing work plans in conjunction with council.

“Council, we need your assessors, planners and consenters to work with us so that we can future-proof our structures so that we can continue.”

$3.5m for marae provides ‘some balance’

Marae perform important roles not just for Māori but for the wider community, including as places of refuge during civil defence and emergency management responses, chief executive David Langford told councillors.

Investing in upgrades such as back-up power generators and rainwater storage tanks would support this critical role, and the wider community would benefit.

However, in a district where 26.3 percent of people identify as Māori, Langford said the proposal was not just about support in times of crisis.

“It’s actually about making sure our Long-Term Plan has some balance and every part of community can see a piece of themselves in the LTP.

“The LTP is quite pākehā-European centric.

“The Royal Opera House, for example, is funded but [we] don’t provide funding to kapa haka, Cooks Gardens athletics [is] funded but not waka ama, the heritage strategy and the restoration fund typically goes toward European architecture in the CBD.

“We fund the cemetery and crematorium but nothing toward urupā.”

The marae development fund will kick in when the central government’s Three Waters Better-Off Funding to the council ends in 2027.

Whanganui was offered $24m by the previous Labour government as part of its Three Waters reforms process.

The council received $6m in the first tranche of the funding. A condition of funding was that councils work with iwi and hapū to agree how the money would be spent.

After consultation with iwi, most of the money was allocated to core council business, including the Sarjeant Gallery redevelopment, North Mole works and parking. The remainder – $1.4m – was earmarked for improving infrastructure and buildings at marae.

When the Labour government changed its Three Waters policy to Affordable Water, it removed the second tranche of promised funding, some of which the council had agreed to use for further investment into the marae.

“Because it was removed, we had a request from some hapū for council to step in and provide some funding to fill the gap,” Langford said.

The new marae development grants will be available from 2028 to 2034, giving Whanganui district marae access to a total of $4.9m upgrades funding over 10 years.

LDR is local body journalism co-funded by RNZ and NZ On Air.